Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Bernard of Clairvaux
"Faith Is Above All a Personal, Intimate Encounter With Jesus"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 21, 2009
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about St. Bernard of Clairvaux, called "the
last father" of the Church, because in the 12th century he renewed once
again and rendered present the great theology of the Fathers. We do not
know details about the years of his boyhood. We know, nevertheless, that
he was born in 1090 in Fontaines, France, in a numerous, moderately
comfortable family. As a youth, he spent himself in the study of the
so-called liberal arts -- especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics --
at the school of the canons of the church of St. Vorles, in
Chatillon-sur-Seine, and he slowly matured his decision to enter the
When he was about 20, he entered Citeaux, a new monastic foundation,
more flexible than the old and venerable monasteries of the time and, at
the same time, more rigorous in the practice of the evangelical
counsels. A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was invited by St. Stephen
Harding, third abbot of Citeaux, to found the monastery of Clairvaux.
Here the young abbot -- who was only 25 years old -- was able to refine
his concept of monastic life, and to be determined to put it into
practice. Looking at the discipline of other monasteries, Bernard
decidedly reclaimed the need for a sober and measured life, at table as
well as in dress and in the monastic buildings, recommending the support
and care of the poor. In the meantime, the community of Clairvaux became
ever more numerous and multiplied its foundations.
In those same years, before 1130, Bernard maintained a vast
correspondence with many persons, whether of important or modest social
conditions. To the many letters of this period must be added numerous
sermons, as well as sentences and treatises. Striking at this time was
Bernard's friendship with William, abbot of St. Thierry, and with
William of Champeaux, among the most important figures of the 12th
From 1130 onward, he began to be concerned with not a few grave
questions of the Holy See and of the Church. For this reason, he had to
go out of his monastery ever more often, and sometimes outside of
France. He also founded some women's convents, and was protagonist of a
lively correspondence with Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, about
whom I spoke last Wednesday.
He addressed his controversial writings above all against Abelard, a
great thinker who began a new way of making theology, introducing above
all the dialectic-philosophical method in the construction of
theological thought. Another front against which Bernard fought was the
heresy of the Cathars, who held matter and the human body in contempt,
consequently scorning the Creator. As well, he felt it his duty to take
on the defense of the Jews, condemning the ever more diffuse resurgence
of anti-Semitism. For this last aspect of his apostolic action, some 10
years later, Ephraim, rabbi of Bonn, addressed a vibrant tribute to
Bernard. In that same period the holy abbot wrote his most famous works,
such as the well-known Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles.
In the last years of his life -- his death occurred in 1153 -- Bernard
had to limit his journeys, without however interrupting them altogether.
He took advantage to review definitively the whole of the letters,
sermons and treatises.
Worthy of being mentioned is a book that is quite singular, that he
finished precisely in this period, in 1145, when one of his pupils,
Bernard Pignatelli, was elected Pope, taking the name Eugene III. In
this circumstance, Bernard, in the capacity of spiritual father, wrote
to this spiritual son of his the text "De Consideratione," which
contains teachings on how to be a good pope. In this book, which remains
an appropriate book for popes of all times, Bernard does not only
indicate what it is to be a good pope, but also expresses a profound
vision of the mystery of the Church and of the mystery of Christ, which
is resolved, in the end, in the contemplation of the mystery of the
Triune and One God: "He must again continue the search of this God, who
is not yet sufficiently sought," writes the holy abbot "but perhaps He
can be sought better and found more easily with prayer than with
discussion. We put an end here to the book, but not to the search" (XIV,
32: PL 182, 808), to being on the way to God.
I would now like to reflect on two key aspects of Bernard's rich
doctrine: they regard Jesus Christ and Mary Most Holy, his Mother. His
solicitude for the intimate and vital participation of the Christian in
the love of God in Jesus Christ does not offer new guidelines in the
scientific status of theology. But, in a more than decisive way, the
abbot of Clairvaux configures the theologian to the contemplative and
the mystic. Only Jesus -- insists Bernard in face of the complex
dialectical reasoning of his time -- only Jesus is "honey to the mouth,
song to the ear, joy to the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde
iubilum)." From here stems, in fact, the title attributed to him by
tradition of Doctor Mellifluus: his praise of Jesus Christ, in fact,
"runs like honey."
In the extenuating battles between nominalists and realists -- two
philosophical currents of the age -- the abbot of Clairvaux does not
tire of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus the Nazarene.
"Arid is all food of the soul," he confesses, "if it is not sprinkled
with this oil; insipid, if it is not seasoned with this salt. What is
written has no flavor for me, if I have not read Jesus." And he
concludes: "When you discuss or speak, nothing has flavor for me, if I
have not heard resound the name of Jesus" (Sermones in Cantica
Canticorum XV, 6: PL 183,847).
For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consists in a personal,
profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And this, dear
brothers and sisters, is true for every Christian: Faith is above all a
personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his
closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to
know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this
happen to each one of us."
In another famous sermon on the Sunday Between the Octave of the
Assumption, the holy abbot describes in impassioned terms the intimate
participation of Mary in the redeeming sacrifice of the Son. "O holy
Mother," he exclaims, "truly a sword has pierced your soul! ... To such
a point the violence of pain has pierced your soul, that with reason we
can call you more than martyr, because your participation in the Passion
of the Son greatly exceeded in intensity the physical sufferings of
martyrdom" (14: PL 183, 437-438).
Bernard has no doubts: "per Mariam ad Iesum," through Mary we are led to
Jesus. He attests clearly to Mary's subordination to Jesus, according to
the principles of traditional Mariology. But the body of the sermon also
documents the privileged place of the Virgin in the economy of
salvation, in reference to the very singular participation of the Mother
(compassio) in the sacrifice of the Son. It is no accident that, a
century and a half after Bernard's death, Dante Alighieri, in the last
canto of the Divine Comedy, puts on the lips of the "Mellifluous Doctor"
the sublime prayer to Mary: "Virgin Mary, daughter of your Son,/ humble
and higher than a creature,/ fixed end of eternal counsel, ..." (Paradiso
33, vv. 1ss.).
These reflections, characteristic of one in love with Jesus and Mary as
St. Bernard was, rightly inflame again today not only theologians but
all believers. At times an attempt is made to resolve the fundamental
questions on God, on man and on the world with the sole force of reason.
Instead, St. Bernard, solidly based on the Bible and on the Fathers of
the Church, reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished
by prayer and contemplation, by a profound relationship with the Lord,
our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming a futile
intellectual exercise, and lose their credibility. Theology takes us
back to the "science of the saints," to their intuitions of the
mysteries of the living God, to their wisdom, gift of the Holy Spirit,
which become the point of reference for theological thought.
Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too must recognize that man seeks
God better and finds him more easily "with prayer than with discussion."
In the end, the truest figure of the theologian and of every evangelizer
is that of the Apostle John, who leaned his head on the heart of the
I would like to conclude these reflections on St. Bernard with the
invocations to Mary that we read in one of his beautiful homilies. "In
danger, in anguish, in uncertainty," he says, "think of Mary, call on
Mary. May she never be far from your lips, from your heart; and thus you
will be able to obtain the help of her prayer, never forget the example
of her life. If you follow her, you cannot go astray; if you pray to
her, you cannot despair; if you think of her, you cannot be mistaken. If
she sustains you, you cannot fall; if she protects you, you have nothing
to fear; if she guides you, do not tire; if she is propitious to you,
you will reach the goal ..." (Hom. II super "Missus est," 17: PL 183,
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our continuing catechesis on the theologians of the Middle Ages, we
now turn to one of the most outstanding, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
Bernard combined the austerity of the Cistercian monastic renewal with
intense activity in the service of the Church in his time. Because of
his great learning and deep spirituality he is venerated as a Doctor of
the Church, and is often called "the last of the Fathers." Together with
his theological writings and homilies, including the celebrated Sermons
on the Song of Songs, Bernard maintained a vast correspondence,
developed warm friendships with his contemporaries, defended sound
doctrine, and combated heresy and outbreaks of antisemitism. His
spirituality was profoundly Christ-centred and contemplative, and his
celebration of the sweetness of Christ's name won him the title of
Doctor mellifluus. Bernard is also known for his fervent devotion to our
Lady and his insight into her intimate sharing in the sacrifice of her
Son. May Bernard's example of faith nourished by prayer, study and
contemplation, lead us closer "to Jesus through Mary" and grant us that
wisdom which finds joyful fulfillment in the knowledge of the saints in
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at
today's Audience, especially from the Diocese of Lismore and Saginaw
accompanied by their Bishops, as well as from Holy Cross and Saint
Margaret Mary parish in Edinburgh. I also greet the visitors from the
Netherlands, Nigeria, Tanzania, England, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.
Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of peace, joy and hope!
[Copyright 2009 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana]
[In Italian, he said:]
I greet, finally, young people, the sick and newlyweds. Dear friends,
the month of October invites us to renew our active cooperation with the
mission of the Church. With the fresh energies of youth, with the
strength of prayer and of sacrifice and with the capacity of conjugal
life, may you be missionaries of the Gospel, offering your concrete
support to all those who labor, dedicating their whole existence to the
evangelization of peoples.
[Translation by ZENIT]
at the One they Pierced!
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